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Stability Eludes Sunni Arab Strongholds

Samarra Residents Caught Between Insurgent Strikes, U.S. Response

By Steve Fainaru
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 18, 2005; Page A16

SAMARRA, Iraq -- The Iraqi woman signed a standard U.S. government invoice and a soldier gave her $10. She folded the crisp bill and frowned.

She had just signed over her two-story house for use by the U.S. military, which then placed snipers on the roof, hoping to spot and kill insurgents.

U.S. soldiers from the 3rd Batallion, 69th Armor Regiment, question an Iraqi man during an operation in Samarra, where insurgents continue to attack U.S. and Iraqi forces. (Courtesy Of U.s. Army 3rd Battallion, 69th Armor Regiment)

This had the woman worried. "Please, I want to show you a picture of my husband," she pleaded with the soldiers. "He's coming home soon with the kids. He has a white Mitsubishi. Please don't shoot him."

U.S. soldiers are back in this city in central Iraq four months after the U.S. military announced that it had "freed the city of Samarra from the clutches of anti-Iraqi forces." A U.S. offensive in October in this Sunni Arab city was designed to provide stability for nationwide elections, install a new local government and lay the groundwork for $13.5 million in reconstruction.

But insurgents continue to attack U.S. and Iraqi forces with bullets, mortars, land mines, grenades and bombs. Caught between the insurgents and the U.S. military's response are the city's 300,000 residents, most of whom have nothing to do with the fighting, U.S. commanders say.

A day spent with soldiers from the 3rd Platoon, Bravo Company, 3rd Battalion, 69th Armor Regiment, showed the inevitable toll on Samarrans when U.S. forces seek out creative ways to locate and destroy a stubborn enemy.

The continuing inability to contain the insurgency raises questions about the U.S. military's progress in such Sunni Arab strongholds as Samarra, Fallujah and Mosul, where major operations were conducted before the elections.

Despite the October offensive in Samarra, it has neither a police force nor a functioning government. Millions of dollars in reconstruction projects are on hold because contractors believe it is too dangerous to work. Military officers hope that the deployment of 267 Iraqi police officers scheduled to begin patrols this Sunday will help pacify the city.

The 69th Armor Regiment's 3rd Battalion, part of the 3rd Infantry Division based in Ft. Stewart, Ga., took over responsibility for Samarra just after the Jan. 30 elections.

As in other Sunni Arab cities, turnout here was light, with just over 2,000 ballots cast. Since the election, the battalion has seen "as many as seven, eight, nine, 10 attacks a day," said Lt. Col. Mark Wald of Saratoga, Calif., the battalion commander.

Last Sunday, a mortar landed on top of an armored personnel carrier at the entrance to Camp Uvanni, a U.S. patrol base, killing a soldier perched in the turret and seriously wounding another.

The most common threat to U.S. forces here are improvised explosive devices (IEDs), or roadside bombs. On Monday afternoon, soldiers found a bomb that was made from two 2 1/2-foot mortar shells. Explosives specialists dismantled the device and pulled it from the ground.

On Tuesday morning, soldiers from Bravo Company set out from Camp Uvanni in a convoy of armored Humvees and Bradley Fighting Vehicles to locate a man suspected of planting roadside bombs.

The streets of Samarra were lined with bullet-pocked houses, abandoned vehicles and piles of reeking, uncollected garbage, some of it steaming in the cold, bright morning.

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